Adderall Abuse Alters Brain, Claims a Young Life


For those with ADHD, the drug increases alertness, libido and overall cognitive performance, improving mood and stemming fatigue. For the last 15 years, treatment with Adderall has helped significantly improve many lives.

But for those who do not have the disorder, the drug, like other powerful amphetamines, causes euphoria, increasing the risk of addiction.

According to the CDC, 1 in 12 Americans is diagnosed with ADHD and sales of Adderall have soared more than 30-fold since 2001.

And so has abuse of the drug, says the CDC.

The pill popping starts in high school, where 1 in 10 students in grades 7 to 12 has used Adderall to help with school performance, according to a 2006 study by the Partnership for a Drug-Free America.

'Bitten by a Radioactive Spider'

They share it, buy it from one another, or fake ADHD to obtain it, and misuse carries on into college, where academic pressures are even greater.

Writer Joshua Foer, who took Adderall for a week as an experiment, said he was so productive he felt as though he had been "bitten by a radioactive spider."

"Depressives have Prozac, worrywarts have Valium, gym rats have steroids, and overachievers have Adderall," he wrote in 2005 for Slate magazine.

Classified as a schedule II controlled substance, the Food and Drug Administration acknowledges its potential for abuse.

Between 2000 and 2005, the FDA identified nearly 1,000 cases of psychosis or mania -- particularly hallucinations -- linked to drugs like Adderall and in 2007 it directed drug companies to inform patients of adverse psychiatric symptoms.

"Selling or giving away these drugs may harm others, and is against the law, as well," said FDA spokesman Sandy Walsh. "Adderall has a boxed warning about the potential for abuse that alerts physicians that the drugs 'should be prescribed or dispensed sparingly.'"

Each time the drug is dispensed a patient must be given an FDA-approved medication guide, which discusses warnings.

"The package insert clearly states the risks associated with incorrect dosage, misuse or abuse and recommends that doctors properly monitor patients," said Denise Bradley, a spokesman for Teva Pharmaceuticals, which manufacturers Adderall. "This medicine is not recommended for patients with a history of drug abuse."

But Fallon Schultz, a licensed clinical social worker and addiction specialist from Howell, N.J., said misuse of the drug can actually chemically alter the brain.

A 2009 report in Scientific American suggests that despite the short-term benefits of the drug, long-term use could change brain function enough to depress mood and boost anxiety. Young brains are particularly vulnerable because they are not fully developed until the mid-20s.

In a patient without ADHD, the amygdala -- the part of the brain that controls emotions and aggression -- can become overactive from stimulants like Adderall, leading to increased dopamine levels.

Studies at UCLA show that those who use amphetamines have higher rates of aggression, psychosis and suicide, according to Schultz.

"It tricks the brain that it doesn't need to make dopamine, and dopamine is the only chemical in the brain that once it is damaged, you never get it back," said Schultz. "That results in severe depressions and mood dysregulation."

Not only that, but the drug can sometimes trigger irreversible schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.

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